NBA All-Decade Team: First Four Off the Bench
All-Decade Team Philosophy
While talking about game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and the Warriors, Bill Simmons and Brian Windhorst emphasized the importance of having eight or nine players you can trust. According to them, the Warriors collapsed because they didn’t have enough players to trust at the end (enter Festus Ezeli).
Based on this philosophy, this article will focus on rounding out the All-Decade team’s most reliable nine players. Let’s keep this going.
Giannis’s meteoric rise to league MVP in 2019 was surprising. Milwaukee fans knew he had tremendous potential, but they didn’t expect to have Kirk Goldsberry one day crown him as the best player in the NBA.
Offensively, Giannis mostly resembles a young Shaq if Shaq would’ve developed as a perimeter player. According to Synergy, Giannis was in the 90th and 95th percentile respectively in put backs and rolling in the pick-and-roll. Both of those are portable skills along with 25.6% of his offensive possessions being in transition.
My concern is that Giannis mostly uses isolation possessions in the half court. His isolation skills will certainly be mitigated next to the likes of Durant, LeBron, and Wade, so if I want to maximize his abilities, I’ll need to include more floor spacers.
As a power forward and center, Giannis’ defensive abilities will be extremely valuable. In today’s NBA, it’s not as important to prepare for plotting offensive centers who will post-up on offense. Players, especially big men, must be able to defend the paint and step out on shooters. In Danny Chau’s words, Giannis is “Matchup-Proof” in that no modern offensive set can take advantage of him.
Finally, Giannis’ combination of cliche Kobe work-ethic stories and general good natured-ness makes him a tremendous locker room presence.
Five years after one of the most gruesome injuries in basketball history, Paul George finished third in MVP voting. Prior to breaking his leg, Paul George led a phenomenal defensive Pacers that challenged the Heatles in 2012 and 2013. In 2013, the Pacers had a defense that was 6.1 points better than league average which ranks in the 97th percentile since 1990. However, their -1.6 relative offensive rating ranks in the 31st percentile.
After the injury, George retooled his offensive attack and peaked as the second leading scorer in the league during the 2018-19 season. As the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, he scored in the 91st percentile.
Regardless, George’s skill set positions him as a perfect 2nd or 3rd best player in a lineup because of his offense and defense. He scored in the 96th percentile during spot up possession, and according to Basketball Index’s talent grades, his off ball movement, perimeter defense, and interior defense respectively ranked in the 94th, 92nd, and 81st percentile.
If I may conduct some armchair psychology, George’s decisions to join Westbrook in OKC and Kawhi in LA provide evidence of a guy who doesn’t need to win on his terms. In fact, choosing Westbrook and Kawhi would necessitate a player not be the focal point on offense. This All-Decade team has enough focal points already, so George is a perfect 7th man.
After this, every decision becomes an exercise in outsmarting myself…
Kawhi marks the first seriously difficult decision I had to make about this team. It’s not that I struggled with picking Kawhi; I struggled with the year. My decision to pick 2016 was difficult because I would argue that Kawhi was better in 2017, 2019, and this year (so far). However, we should all have learned a valuable lesson about the best player not always being the best player and using that knowledge to build a super team (because sometimes it **almost** backfires).
Starting in 2016, Kawhi started becomimg more of a focal point on offense. Offensively, isolation and pick-and-roll possessions require more ball dominance. The following chart illustrates how many more of those possessions Kawhi used since 2015:
|Percentage of Possessions|
|Isolation||Pick-and Roll Ball Handler||Total|
Even though Kawhi’s ascension correlates with his increased offensive responsibility, it’s not a style conducive to offensive meshing. I want the Kawhi that’s maybe 90% on offense while still offering tremendous value as an off ball shooter.
Furthermore, almost all advanced metrics point towards a decline in Kawhi’s defensive production:
|Defensive PIPM||Defensive Backpicks BPM||DRAPM|
I find the “Kawhisland Theory” fascinating but not wholly convincing. I’m of the belief that much of this can be explained by Kawhi’s increased role on offense. When he was truly a wrecking ball on defense, he was surrounded by a more egalitarian ecosystem on offense. Going from main offensive option to defensive anchor is extraordinarily difficult.
Also, Kawhi seems to have taken a step back since the mystical quad injury. Like most dominant players, he can turn it on during certain possessions, but he has seemingly lost the true DPoY status. All of this is the reason that I picked 2016 Kawhi for the All-Decade team.
This is a good time to announce that I will be writing an “in defense of the cuts” post mortem, so trust that I’ll explain why certain players didn’t make the All-Decade team. For now, let’s celebrate the picks.
It’s impossible to pick just one linchpin of the grit-and-grind Grizzlies between Gasol, Tony Allen, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph, but none of it would’ve been possible without Gasol’s brilliance. He is a clear case of the box score missing some key elements of his value. In the words of his teammate Zach Randolph:
“Making plays. Talking on defense. Being there. How to get back. [Gasol] makes up on mistakes. You lose your guy; he’s right there, helping. [Gasol’s] a leader. He’s always talking on defense. As he goes and I go, we go.”‘In the mud’ with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol on the Grizzlies’ rise, Matt Moore, 2013
During Grit and grind’s apex in 2013, the Grizz held opponents to 5.6 points under league average (96th percentile since 1990). Even though their offense was worse than average (40th percentile), it’s still better than the George/Hibbert Pacers.
Obviously Gasol wasn’t the sole reason for that success, but it’s nearly impossible to be so elite on defense without the power forward or center being one of the best in the league, and Randolph definitely wasn’t the anchor on defense. Most all-time defenders excel in making superhuman defensive plays. However, Gasol wasn’t going to fly around for a block or a steal. Much like a seasoned Tim Duncan, his value lies in his ability to communicate and rotate.
Even his sub-par rebounding numbers don’t tell the whole story. Similar to Robin and Brook Lopez, Gasol excels at clearing out space for others to grab the rebound. Despite his 7.8 rebounds a game, the Grizzlies offensive and defensive rebounding percentages were both 3.8 percentage points higher with Gasol on the court.
Using the Warriors’ dynasty as a blueprint, their starting center was the plotting Andrew Bogut. His passing, defense, and screening ability proved invaluable in a potentially crowded offensive unit. Gasol potentially does everything better than Bogut. While he didn’t space out to the three point line yet, he shot 49.5% from the long midrange which opens up the lane for the team’s drivers.
Ultimately, his passing unlocks this team’s potential. Gasol’s passer rating (a metric that measures passing on a scale of 1-10) topped out at 7.9 which is comparable to 2019 Nikola Jokic. In his own words, here’s Gasol describing his offensive style:
“I just try and play what’s there. I don’t take 25 shots a night. I’m not that kind of player. I try not to force shots. Sometimes when the shot clock is down, you have to take bad shots. I’ll always try to take the best shot that’s available. If I see a guy open, I’m going to try and hit him. If I feel like he has a better shot than I do, it’s automatic. It’s hard for me to be like, ‘Oh, he’s open, [but] I’m not going to pass it.'”‘In the mud’ with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol on the Grizzlies’ rise, Matt Moore, 2013
Very few modern offenses can create a reliably great offense based on traditional big man skills, but with an intelligent brute like Gasol, he helps enhance the other transcendent scorers around him on this All-Decade team.
All-Decade Team Part 3: The Final Three Players
With my core nine players selected, part 3 will focus on rounding out this twelve-man roster. The philosophy behind these players will shift from the top nine, so consider what sorts of skills and personalities would be best for that role.
Until then, find me on Twitter if you’d like to discuss my selections.